Portfolio Advice for Design Students and Job Seekers

Summary by Angela Niemi

Students and professionals building their design portfolios 

On Saturday, March 19, 2016, six esteemed contributors to the Twin Cities’ design community spoke to a group of 65 students and professionals about preparing their portfolios for the job search. On the panel: Monica Little, founder and chair at Little; Reid Peifer, partner and art director at Modern Tribe; Lory Sutton, chief marketing officer at Minnesota Historical Society; Jane Tilka, founder and principal at Tilka Design; Travis Totz, senior web strategist at Modern Tribe; and Paul Wharton, principal and creative director of WhartonWorks. The discussion, lead by Brent Stickels, partner at YYES, consisted of four segments: Portfolio Format, Content, Presentation, and Interviewing. Here’s what our experts had to say.

The Format of Your Portfolio

The format of your portfolio should match the content of your work. For example, if you’re an interaction designer, your portfolio should be digital and interactive. If you’re a packaging designer, your work should be photographed and accompanied by your best samples.

Having an online presence is crucial to getting hired. Potential employers will view your work online before meeting you in person. Reserve your personal domain for three to six pieces that represent your absolute best and most relevant work, use your Dribbble, Behance, and Tumblr sites to collect the rest of your work. This proves that you’ve not only created a body of work, but that you know how to curate it.

Physical portfolios are great for showcasing printed work and highlighting your craft. Don’t let dings, dog-ears, misspellings, or gimmicks distract from the work inside. A few things to keep in mind while crafting a physical portfolio:

  • Is it durable in some way? You’ll have to carry this thing around.
  • Does it lay flat when opened?
  • Is it easy to change and update over time?

As a designer, it’s our nature want to turn our personal brand into its own portfolio piece. Reid Peifer challenges that: 
“Don’t make your portfolio about your portfolio.” Your personal brand and the format of your portfolio is important, but it shouldn’t be loud. You should consider everything from your personal logotype, to your resume, to the way you answer the phone, but don’t let these things overshadow the content of your portfolio. Paul Wharton reminds us, “Content is king.”

Portfolio Content

Your portfolio should consist of three to six examples of your best work. Include at least two case studies. These case studies should highlight the problem, your process, strategic thinking, and how you reached the final solution. 

The type of work you show in your portfolio is usually the type of work you’ll be hired for. If you’re interested in a specific area of design, tailor your portfolio to match.

Show projects that you’re passionate about and use school assignments as a jumping-off point. School assignments are designed to teach a specific skill, they’re usually not full systems. When you’ve completed an assignment that you enjoyed, use this as an opportunity to expand and create a case study. For example, if your assignment was to create a poster for a music festival, consider how your poster could apply itself to event signage, social media campaigns, and a mobile application. 

Other creative skills like illustration or photography are okay to include in your portfolio, but not at the expense of your design work. Try applying these skills in your projects versus creating additional sections of your portfolio. In addition, your portfolio is a great place to show off self-initiated work. Taking on projects that weren’t assigned proves that you’re a passionate self-starter. 

Finally, give credit where credit is due. Employers want to know that you can collaborate and work with others. Show team projects, but be clear about your role, your responsibilities, and the people you worked with.

Presenting Your Work

In an interview situation, you’ll get 30 minutes to an hour to talk through your portfolio. Going over time is typically a good sign. Kicking off the conversation with your favorite project will help calm your nerves and break the ice. 

If you’re presenting digital work, try to present it in a way that allows you to interact with it. If you’ve done projects that have been printed, samples can be a great addition to your portfolio, but only if they represent your best work. 

It can be easy to get caught up in the details of your work, like the colors you chose and the fonts you’re using. The person viewing your portfolio is more interested in the problem you were trying to solve, how you got there, and any challenges you faced along the way. Remember, they’re looking at all of the visual details. Tell them the story, the part they can’t see.

Know that there will be times that you’re presenting your portfolio, and other times that you’ll be responding to questions from the person you’re sharing your work with. It’s best to be prepared for either scenario. It’s okay to talk about challenges you’ve faced with your teams and clients, but don’t put anyone down.

Interview / Follow-up

When you know you’re going in for an interview be sure that you do your research well in advance. Arrive 15 minutes early, because being on time is like being late.  Understand who you’re talking to; Reid gives you full permission to stalk him on social media before you interview. Make sure you know what the company does, the work they’ve done, and who they’ve worked for. It’s a good idea to have a couple of questions prepared before you interview. Most importantly, you should know why you want to work there and be prepared to talk about it. 

Call ahead, do some online research, or ask around and find out how people dress on a daily basis. Once you know how everyone dresses, take it up a notch, or two. Also, bring your curiosity. Carry a paper and pen to take notes with.

Interviews are really about getting to know the people you’ll be working with. You can plan on having about 15 minutes to talk about your work, followed by a 45-minute conversation about your interests. Some work-related questions you’ll want to be prepared to speak to are:

  • What designers inspire you?
  • How do you collaborate with a team?
  • How do you like to work and be managed?
  • What failures have you overcome?

Some unrelated work questions might include:

  • What’s your background?
  • Do you drink beer or wine?
  • What show are you watching on Netflix?

Remember, you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you, so be prepared with questions. Know that if you get the job, you’ll be working with this person every day. They’re just trying to understand if you’re a good cultural fit.

At the end of your interview, you should ask what the timeline and next steps are. And once you’ve left, make sure that you follow up! It’s totally appropriate to send an email in a few hours of your interview thanking your interviewer for their time. Continue the follow-up with a handwritten thank-you note. Monica Little claims that a handwritten thank-you note will put you in the top 5% of all applicants. 

Final Insights

Remember, your portfolio is a working prototype. It’s a reflection of you and your work right now, but that will always be changing and evolving. 

Here’s a recap of a few things you can do to be portfolio-ready:

  • Choose 3 to 6 pieces of your best work, including at least 2 case studies.
  • Edit your choices and craft meaningful statements.
  • Make sure the format of your portfolio matches the content.
  • Always look for opportunities to take and apply feedback to your work.
  • Do informational interviews to ease any fears of interviewing.
  • Ask questions and be personable.
  • Follow up with emails and thank-you cards.

Contact Leadership

Jhoselin Dominguez
Jhoselin Dominguez
Associate Director, Communications
I am a graphic designer from Kansas currently living in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. I graduated May of 2019 from Fort Hays State University with a B.F.A in Graphic Design. My hobbies include writing short stories, riding my longboard, and playing the piano.